Saturday, March 8, 2008

Scrutinizing Michigan's Asessment Tool

Withdrawing large amounts of Great Lakes water is as easy as paying your bills online. With a few clicks and the right numbers you could tap into the Great Lakes.

Michigan legislators are currently discussing whether to amend the Senate version (SB 212) of the Great Lakes Compact by adding an Assessment Tool that would create a model based approach towards withdrawing Great Lakes water. The model is intended for large withdrawals exceeding 100,000 gallons per day.

In a recent slideshow, Jon Bartholic, director of Michigan State University’s Institute of Water Research had mock versions of an easy to use water withdrawal website that would provide instant approval or rejection.

The entire concept of an “Assessment Tool” and “Screening Tool” (the website), is from the government appointed Groundwater Conservation Advisory Council.

Public Act 34 was passed in Michigan in February 2006 mandating that the Council come up with “criteria and indicators to evaluate the sustainability of the state’s groundwater use.”

The model that the Council developed works by determining how much water is in Michigan streams and then to determine how much water can be withdrawn before there is an adverse effect on indicator species such as trout.

An indicator species is a species that is sensitive to environmental changes. Trout is the most likely candidate to be the indicator species for the Assessment Tool. Trout are sensitive to temperature changes and are seen as good indicators of stream health by ecologists.

The council has worked out four A-D Zones that water withdrawals will fall under, with A having the least amount of impact on the indicator species and D having the greatest impact on the population.

Zone B is where there is the beginning of a negative impact on the indicator species. What is unclear in the Council’s final report is whether it will be ok to fall into the Zone B range.

The report says: “In Zone B the proposed water use will likely begin to impact ‘thriving’ fish populations and, at a minimum, steps need to be taken to better understand water uses in the area and concerns regarding specific aquatic resources and to educate users.”

The council left the Zone B issue unresolved, the report stated: “The Council did not reach final consensus on whether or not a withdrawal in Zone B also should be considered as ‘not likely to cause an Adverse Resource Impact,’ either by the Screening Tool or following a site-specific determination. We recognize that this area required discussion beyond the time afforded the Council for deliberations.”

The unresolved Zone B is significant since the Council recommended that this model should become the legal standard for water withdrawals in Michigan.

Other legal aspects for the final decision are that the decision is based on the best available data and then the decision can be challenged legally by either a third party or by the applicant.

The Council did not set up any guidelines for anybody that over time ends up falling in the Zone C or D range. There also has not been consensus over whether these permits should be permanent or renewable.

James Clift, who was a member of the Council and is part of the Michigan Environmental Council disagreed with the reports acknowledgement that some streams could be reduced by as much as 40-50 percent and still fall into Zone A and could still “support good populations of trout.”

In a press release Clift explains: “The numbers prove that the assessment tool should be used exactly for what it was intended – as a tool, not the sole means of determining whether water users can responsibly pump huge quantities of water from the ground.”

The Council did not come to a consensus over whether each stream should be valued equally or on a stream by stream basis since some streams are valued differently for their ecological or recreational importance.

Groundwater Conservation Advisory Council: Final Report

Groundwater Conservation Advisory Council MDEQ website

by Jason Tafilowski

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